Health

Why a Baby Can Literally Be Like a Drug

Has your aunt ever tried to pinch your cheek or squish your face due to your unbelievable cuteness? It turns out there's some science to explain this.

Sometimes people experience so much emotion from seeing something cute that they react in the opposite way you would expect, according to a 2014 Yale University study in Psychological Science.

When someone sees something adorable and responds in an aggressive way, it's called a "dimorphous expression." The feeling of aggression may be attributed to people not being able to control the intensity of their reaction when they see something really cute.

“I think it's triggered by having a really strong feeling of wanting to care [for] or approach the little, cute thing,” Yale researcher Oriana Aragon told ATTN:. To balance that out, we may react in an opposite fashion, wanting to pinch the baby or "eat them up," she said. It's about keeping an equilibrium with your emotions.

To understand this, Yale researchers conducted online surveys, including one with 390 women and 289 men. The surveys showed participants pictures of babies, some featuring younger and more "infantile" babies. The survey showed that participants had a greater emotional response to the images of infantile babies. But they also showed a more aggressive response to them, meaning they were almost too enthusiastic.

Aragon told ATTN: that there is a trait associated with cuteness called "pedomorphic features." These are features often associated with babies, like pudgy cheeks and big eyes. Anything (including an inanimate object) that appears to have these features will trigger a "cuteness response." More infantile babies have stronger pedomorphic features. She believes we've evolved to enjoy these features, which is good for causing parents to want to care for a child.

Why do you want to eat the baby?

A 2013 study by Johannes Frasnelli, a brain research professor at the University of Montreal, wanted to figure out why people think newborn babies smell so good.

Researchers took pajamas that were worn for a few weeks by newborn babies and gave them to two sets of female subjects: New mothers and childless women. When the women smelled the pajamas, researchers scanned their brains. They found that both sets of women had a strong reaction in the part of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.

“In both mothers and non-mothers we found an activation of centers of the brain which are usually responsible for reward," Frasnelli told ATTN:. "Basically, the same centers that are activated when you're doing something you like a lot, like eating when you're very hungry, or taking drugs as a drug addict, or smoking [cigarettes].”

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When the results were reported in the media, they appeared under headlines like this one from the New York Daily News: "Study explains why mothers have urge to eat their newborn babies."

That's not really what the study revealed, Frasnelli told ATTN: But it's true that the aroma of a newborn baby activates the same area of the brain that lights up when you're doing something you enjoy, such as eating or taking a drug.

It's an evolutionary adaptation that humans developed so they would feel a desire to take care of their children, Frasnelli said: The child's smell evolved to stoke a parent's interest, and a parent evolved to find it extremely rewarding.

Frasnelli is amused by the confusion over his research. “There's a homepage where they report zombie research, and our study was mentioned in there,” he said.

Keeping humanity intact

Frasnelli and Aragon agreed that it's overwhelming for humans to raise children, and evolutionary mechanisms developed to keep the human race around.

“We want to pay close attention to our young. Particularly human babies that are so helpless for so long," Aragon said. "They need that directed attention toward them for years, and it would be difficult to do that without these mechanisms in place.”

Having a child is not always an easy thing, Frasnelli said. You lose sleep. You have to attend to them all of the time. They're expensive. We've evolved to see beyond those issues and find child-rearing a rewarding experience.

“If parents didn't take care of their children, mankind would go extinct pretty easily," Frasnelli said. "Nature has evolved in a way that there are mechanisms that parents are attached very strongly to their children.”

So we may have learned to love cuteness because of a need to care for children, even if we do get overwhelmed sometimes, and newborn babies have learned to make us feel rewarded by emitting aromas we find appealing. Even if you don't really want to eat them.